Jim the trap-happy field vole

Looking for harvest mice at an airport

6.10am on a chilly November morning. It will be almost another hour before the sun rises, and a mist clings to the ground in the pre-dawn gloom. Most sensible people are still in bed, but I’m at Gatwick Airport. Not catching a flight to somewhere warm, nor waiting to welcome a loved one home. I’m here to see some wildlife.

An airport seems an unlikely place to see any exciting animals. Acres of tarmac, deafening noise, light and air pollution. I was intrigued, which is partly what brought me there so early in the morning. That and the hope of seeing a harvest mouse.

Beyond the public areas of the airport there are some pockets rich in wildlife. They have Bechsteins bats, the rare long-horned bee and great crested newts. But it was harvest mice I was interested in.

Chilly morning at Gatwick airportThe previous night Jim Jones from Surrey Wildlife Trust and Rachel Bicker, an ecologist at Gatwick, had set out 60 small mammal traps, and we were here to see what had been caught.

Jim showed us how to check the traps, and if occupied, how to weigh and sex the animal, then reset the trap with fresh bait. Our first occupant was a male field vole. Jim clipped his fur (so we could tell if we catch him again) and released him into the long grass. Voles are quite laid back creatures compared to mice – their response to danger is to stay still in the hope of not being seen, which makes them relatively easy to handle. The woodmice we found in some of the other traps were a bit more challenging.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

So, nothing more exciting than a field vole from the first check. Time to go home and try to warm up.

The traps need to be checked three times a day, so I still had a couple more opportunities to see a harvest mouse. I returned at lunchtime, and the whole scene had transformed. The mist had disappeared, and the sun warmed us as we worked. The vole we had caught and released that morning had found his way back into a trap. The next occupied box we found gave us a surprise. It felt like it was buzzing when I picked it up, and I expected a very angry mouse to bounce out, but it turned out to be a disgruntled wren, who flew off to safety. That was our lunchtime haul, but we were also treated to views of a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk.

wrenThe evening check felt very different again. The planes seemed bigger and closer in the dark, and we had to rely on torch light to see the traps. The same vole had found his way back into a trap. Having seen him three times in one day, we decided he needed a name, and settled on Jim. No wrens this time, but another woodmouse or two.

Sadly no harvest mice showed up for me. The traps stayed out the rest of the week. Rachel and a team of dedicated volunteers checked them three times a day, come rain or come shine. But no harvest mice turned up.

It was a worthwhile experience. I’ve seen a field vole and learnt how to distinguish it from a bank vole. I’ve learnt how to use three types of small mammal traps, and seen a kingfisher. And I’ve had a fascinating glimpse into the wildlife of Gatwick Airport. You can read more about biodiversity at the UK’s second busiest airport on the Biodiversity Gatwick blog.

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